A message to centrist American Jews: Time to speak out

We’ve just celebrated Israel’s 67th Independence Day —– a remarkable achievement that makes us proud.
May 21, 2015

We’ve just celebrated Israel’s 67th Independence Day —– a remarkable achievement that makes us proud. But more and more American Jews worry that the sharpening divisions in our community are hampering our efforts to help Israel achieve long-term security and peace.

And Bloomberg’s poll released just before Independence Day heightened our alarm. Its central finding was, “Israel has become a deeply partisan issue for ordinary Americans as well as for politicians in Washington.”

America’s Jewish community has created numerous organizations that enabled us to successfully engage in pro-Israel advocacy across the political spectrum. AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), for example, long has served as the vehicle for working closely with Israeli governments to generate American support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. Its impact on discourse in Washington is unquestionable.  

With frustration growing in the last decade or so over the lack of progress toward resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some American Jews believed that a new alternative voice willing to criticize Israeli policies was needed. The result: J Street, which has provided advocacy on Israel-related issues from the left, though centrists feel its voice has been unnecessarily provocative at times.

Although both organizations play important roles, a significant segment of our community, in the political center, does not feel represented by either group. We centrists support the goal of two states for two peoples, and we believe that Palestinians and Israelis have not done enough to advance that objective. But we fear that the two-state solution risks becoming viewed as a cause for liberals only, even though it is a core interest of Israel and the United States. We worry that the U.S.-Israel relationship itself is becoming a partisan issue, which the Bloomberg poll just confirmed.

Our concerns are not about being pro-Benjamin Netanyahu or pro-Barack Obama. We yearn for a realistic approach that will enable Israel to remain a secure, Jewish and democratic state. And we want honesty.

Honesty means telling the Israeli government that achieving peace with the Palestinians must be an active enterprise, not a goal grudgingly endorsed. This involves leaving most of the West Bank. That step carries risks, so Israel will need stringent security safeguards. Exiting also will be painful, as there are many sites there associated with our religious and historical narrative. But it must be done. A single state between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea is a prescription for disaster.

Regrettably, honesty also means acknowledging the reality that a conflict-ending agreement with the Palestinians is currently beyond reach. Nevertheless, Israeli policies should be geared toward preserving the two-state solution for the future — not endangering it by continuing to build beyond the settlement blocs and in politically sensitive areas of Jerusalem, for example. In addition, rather than weaken the Palestinian Authority by withholding tax revenues, Israel should strengthen security cooperation and bolster joint economic development.

Honesty entails telling Palestinian leadership that their aspiration for an independent state will not be fulfilled via international pressures on Israel but through negotiations. They need to oppose violence and incitement, and move toward a single, empowered government controlling the West Bank and Gaza, committed to living alongside Israel in peace.

Honesty demands opposing those advocates in the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement who claim to act on behalf of the Palestinian cause but in reality are more intent on delegitimizing Israel. Their destructive efforts should be replaced by positive programs for Palestinians and Israelis that enhance the peacemaking environment. 

Regarding the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, honesty means telling Arab leaders that, while this is an important step, they need to persuade Israelis that peace with Palestinians can lead to a regional rapprochement. And it means telling Israel’s leaders that it is in Israel’s interest to respond positively to this initiative. Then the U.S. should facilitate discussions between Israel and Arab states leading to normalization and regional security arrangements that could stimulate movement toward Israeli-Palestinian peace and the formation of a coalition to confront extremist violence in the region.  

Finally, honesty requires reminding President Obama that there can be no timeout in the pursuit of peace, and that an active American role is essential in this quest. Israel is a strong country with an army capable of defending its borders no matter where they are drawn as part of a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. But we should be sensitive to the Israelis who see the region exploding, extremist groups operating near their borders and Iran posing a potential existential threat. Regardless of whether a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is reached, the U.S. should find concrete ways to reassure Israel and our other regional allies of America’s unshakable commitment to their security.

Jewish tradition teaches, “Seek peace and pursue it.” It is time, long overdue, for the American-Jewish political center to wake up and make sure its views — such as the ones expressed above — are heard loud and clear in the U.S. and Israel.

E. Robert Goodkind is past national president of the American Jewish Committee and member of the executive committee of Israel Policy Forum (IPF), founded in 1993, which advocates for a lasting, negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Martin J. Raffel is past senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and adviser to IPF.

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